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'Accepting war in Afghanistan is critical'

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 03 February 2010

While the armed forces emerge from the defence spending cuts government leaders must recognise that winning the mission in Afghanistan is priority number one, writes Colonel Richard Kemp.

British soldier in Afghanistan (Reuters)

Colonel Richard Kemp is the former commander of British troops in Afghanistan. 

The major weakness of the defence green paper is that it reflects the government’s continued confusion over Afghanistan.

The chief of the defence staff said recently that we will be fighting there at least until 2014. Given the enormity of the challenges in that campaign and the size of our armed forces, everything we do in defence will be dominated for at least the next five years by that conflict.

This should be absolutely central to our defence planning.

Even though the green paper seeks to look out 20 years, it does not give enough emphasis to this reality.

In his introduction Secretary of Defence Bob Ainsworth says: "Our forces are in Afghanistan – necessarily our current main effort."

But Afghanistan only features as the last of a series of "key strategic questions". And incredibly, the question is asked, "To what extent and in what areas should we continue to refocus our current efforts on Afghanistan?"

Accepting Afghanistan
The government has wilfully and consistently refused to accept that we are actually at war in Afghanistan.

This failure has led to the lack of focus, drive and single-minded effort so necessary in the successful prosecution of any war.

In the past year the Ministry of Defence itself has at last realised how formidable a task we face in Afghanistan and has begun to swing most of its efforts behind the war. But that is not the case elsewhere in government.

Every ministry that has a significant function in this campaign, and our defence industry, should be placed onto a war footing. Anything less is inadequate in terms both of achieving our national objectives and supporting our forces, our diplomats and our intelligence agencies on the front line.

Despite the prime minister’s much-vaunted moves to persuade the international community that it must coordinate better and work harder in Afghanistan, we still do not think it worth forming a war cabinet that meets frequently enough to effectively direct our own efforts.

Improving capabilities
But the good news for defence is that the resources and capabilities we are building up for the conflict in Afghanistan will have long-term application in future conflicts.

Dismounted close combat, protected mobility, countering improvised explosive devices, helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles, military intelligence, surveillance and target acquisition, will all play an increasingly important role.

The MOD's "future character of conflict" paper, released with the green paper, quotes Professor Sir Michael Howard’s warning: "No matter how clearly one thinks, it is impossible to anticipate precisely the character of future conflict.

"The key is to not be so far off the mark that it becomes impossible to adjust once that character is revealed.’

But we can’t cover every base with limited – increasingly limited – resources. The key must be flexibility.

Where we judge it necessary to drop a capability, we must have plans in place to rapidly rebuild it should that become necessary. And we must work out ways of increasing our access to allies’ capabilities while not sacrificing too much of our strategic independence – a highly demanding challenge.

Future conflict
We have seen the signs to the most likely future of conflict in recent events in Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq and Afghanistan.

As technology proliferates and becomes cheaper we will face adversaries that have access to what we have previously considered "high end" capabilities. We will see the continued use of powerful proxies along the lines invented by Iran and Hezbollah.

Conflict will be multi-faceted, and we will see further nuclear proliferation and blunt conventional fighting as well as subtler forms of guerrilla war, cyber warfare and terrorism.

In such circumstances we will need some form of nuclear deterrent as well as high end military hardware such as tanks, artillery, fast jets and warships.

But in the face of the most likely future forms of conflict, our defence forces are at present severely unbalanced – configured to fight the last war not the next.

To prosecute complex and protracted ground wars, predominantly among the population, we may have to increase prioritisation of manpower over equipment.

It is worth noting that in their recent restructuring, the armed forces of the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand upped their manpower levels by around 16 - 17 per cent.

Fighting for change
International security has reached a cross-road.

Past defence reviews have tended to salami-slice and to shy away from radical thinking.

Small conservatism has remained the watchword in the MOD, helping to maintain the status-quo among the different service branches, defiant in the face of the evolving threat.

There are signs that this green paper could point the way to the re-balancing that which is so vital to our future security.

But the fight for change will be tough, and some with large clusters of gold braid on their khaki, dark blue and light blue uniforms will have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st Century.

Whatever the future holds, and in whatever shape our armed forces emerge from the defence review, political and military leaders calling the shots must recognise that winning in Afghanistan is priority number one.

What happens there has much greater significance than simply the security of the country and the denial of a base there for al-Qaida.

If we do not demonstrate that we have the capability and will to prevail against the forces of extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the consequences for our long term security in the global war on terror will be profound.

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